With my son’s fifth birthday a mere five months away, he is frantically putting together his wish list of presents. For days, I’ve heard, “Please, I want a LEGO Batmobile. Please, I really want a LEGO Batmobile. Mom, I really, really want a LEGO Batmobile,” like a refrain, or an uninspired Greek chorus.
It doesn’t take long for the voice of my sixth grade English teacher to kick in, ripe with certitude and rules: “No repetition. In the English language, we have an abundance of wonderful words. Let’s use them.” We were required to buy and bring to class a thesaurus, and every essay, every memoir, every argumentative piece had to overflow with new and unique words. This was how we earned an A.
It is yet another rule handed to me by my English teacher that I—older, wiser now—have had to toss. Because by the fourth day of my son’s pleas, I am marveling at the emotional weight created by the repetition. I have heard his excited demand turn into a plea and, finally, a deep-seated longing, threaded through with hope and despair.
Poets have known about repetition for a very long time. Anaphora, repeating the same word or group of words at beginning of successive clauses or sentences, is possibly the oldest literary device, with roots in Biblical Psalms. Elizabethan and Romantic writers breathed new life into this device, creating strong emotion on the page through emphasis. With its song-like quality, anaphora is easily remembered, and so its no surprise that most people remember the opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Politicians have caught on and frequently use it to spark emotion. How brilliant, my son, to invoke such power in his devotion to his longed-for present.
Brilliant, too, is Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir, The Light of the World, and her use of anaphora. Essayist, poet, playwright, Alexander has written a loving elegy to her spouse, who died suddenly four days after his 50th birthday. Where most stories about marriage suck on the marrow of conflict and betrayal, Alexander graces the reader with true love and wonderful prose.
The memoir opens with the sentence, “The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story.”
The word “seems” is critical. While the loss of her husband has given rise to the memoir, the story cannot begin there, or else the depth of meaning of the loss will not be conveyed. She must begin again. And in fact, the next paragraph starts the story again, in the hours prior to his death: “It begins on a beautiful April morning when a man wakes exhausted and returns to sleep in his beloved thirteen-year-old son’s trundle bed, declaring, ‘This is the most comfortable bed I have ever slept it!’ Or it begins when the wife says goodbye to the man a few hours later, walking in front of his car switching her hips a bit, a blown kiss as she heads to her office and he continues on to his painting studio.”
The third paragraph starts over again, when he leaves for his studio, to paint: “Or the story begins as he packs a tote bag with the usual slim thermos of strong coffee…”
The line is repeated four more times in the next two pages. The story can’t find the beginning, and each time Alexander tries to tie the beginning to his death, she rejects it.. Because, after all, this is a love story, not a catastrophe. Alexander’s repetition mimics a mind that suffers a tragedy and can no longer find a narrative thread. The story line has been broken, and the mind has become obsessed, swirling and circling and frantically searching for the thread.
Finally, at the end of the opening chapter, the narrator locates the true beginning, and the story lands gracefully, surprisingly, on the page. It begins long long ago, in fact, in the womb. This is a story of soul mates, of two people meant for each other. “The story began in the winter of 1961, when two quietly mighty women were each pregnant, one in Asmara, Eritrea, and the other in Harlem, USA; one with her sixth child, one with her first.”
Through the use of anaphora, through eight repetitions, Alexander does not have to tell us that the loss of her husband was tragic; the reader feels it. Towards the end of the memoir, she picks up the repetition once again. Alexander writes, “And so the story ends, or pauses, for as we know it is all one long story.”
Collecting dust in my closet, by the way, is a LEGO Batmobile for my soon to be five-year-old son.
Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.